Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks pushed their championship window open during a run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and now the franchise will attempt to hunt down its first title since 1958 when it was based in St. Louis.
Atlanta didn't make any major roster upgrades during the offseason, but it was able to re-sign two key contributors from last season's squad, John Collins and Lou Williams. The front office also added Duke's Jalen Johnson with the 20th overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
Now the question is whether internal improvement will be enough to push the Hawks past the reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and the other contenders in the East.
Let's take a look at all the key information for Atlanta's 2021-22 campaign following the NBA schedule release Friday. That's followed by a look at some top matchups and a record prediction.
2021-22 Hawks Schedule Details
Season Opener: Oct. 21 vs. Dallas Mavericks
Championship Odds: 40-1 (via FanDuel Sportsbook)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
New York Knicks (First Game: Nov. 27)
The Hawks and Knicks finished with the same record (41-31) last season and then faced off in a first-round playoff series that was highly entertaining despite Atlanta advancing rather convincingly in five games.
Young seemed to particularly enjoy the back and forth with the Madison Square Garden crowd throughout the series, highlighted by his 36-point, nine-assist effort in the clincher.
Both teams are starting to emerge from rebuilding periods and are now staring down a key question about whether their progress will continue toward championship contention or whether they'll plateau as a consistent postseason squad that can't quite reach the mountaintop.
The Knicks added Kemba Walker in the offseason, which will help create some additional intrigue in the head-to-head meetings as he faces off with Young.
It's quite possible the teams end up close in the East standings again this season, so this contest could play a role in determining home-court advantage for a potential rematch. That didn't have a major impact on the 2021 playoff matchup, though, as Atlanta started on the road and still rolled.
Of course, Young's return to MSG will also be must-see television given the terrific interactions between the All-Star guard and the crowd in that series.
Milwaukee Bucks (First Game: Nov. 14)
The Hawks put up a serious fight in the Eastern Conference Finals, splitting the first four games with the Bucks before dropping the next two as their memorable postseason run came to a close.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. proceeded to beat the Phoenix Suns in six games to win the title, and that makes them the team to beat heading into the new season. And it makes every head-to-head matchup a measuring-stick opportunity for Atlanta.
The Hawks struggled to slow down the Milwaukee offense in the series, giving up an average of 119.8 points in their four losses, and the one game they were able to string together some stops turned into a 110-88 blowout victory. So how they perform defensively will be watched closely.
That said, the most important meetings figure to come if they face off again in the playoffs.
The Hawks are one of the swing teams in the Eastern Conference.
Are they going to take a step forward to compete with a group expected to include the Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat in what could be a crowded race atop the standings? Or are they a step below those teams and will need to fight to avoid the play-in tournament?
It's a tough situation to analyze because of the limited roster turnover. From a talent standpoint, Atlanta didn't get significantly better or worse during the summer, but it's also important to point out the version of the Hawks from the playoffs was a step above what they'd shown in the regular season.
Depth is one thing working to the team's advantage. All nine of the players who averaged more than 10 points last season are scheduled to return, and having a go-to superstar like Young always tends to help when it comes to close games.
On the flip side, the Hawks must improve at the defensive end if they want to keep pace with the league's elite. Their ESPN BPI rating on defense (-3.5) was the NBA's third-worst mark last season.
One thing's for sure: Young only has one goal in mind.
"When we bring the city of Atlanta a championship," he told ESPN in June about when he'll be satisfied.
While that may not have been an achievable goal during the first few seasons of Young's career, it's now a realistic target for the Hawks after coming within two wins of the Finals last season.
Even if Atlanta doesn't finish with one of the top few records in the East, it'll be a tough out in the postseason for a second straight year.
Record Prediction: 47-35